In Alabama, an assault occurs when a person intentionally, recklessly, or negligently causes physical injury to another person. The state differentiates between misdemeanor and felony assaults by the risk and level of harm involved. Alabama classifies felony assault as either first- or second-degree assault and misdemeanor assault as third-degree assault.
This article will review the various definitions, offense levels, and penalties for assault crimes in Alabama.
Alabama defines assault as an intentional, reckless, or criminally negligent act that results in physical harm to a victim. The more serious the harm is or could be, the more serious the penalties will be. Whether an assault can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor depends largely on the facts of the case. Below are the key definitions that distinguish the various degrees of assault.
The law imposes harsher penalties when a person intends to cause another harm versus acting in a reckless or negligent manner. Usually, the jury looks to the defendant's words and actions when deciding on their criminal state of mind.
Intentional. For instance, a person who acts with the purpose of hurting another has acted intentionally. Punching someone in the gut out of anger is an intentional act. Intent can also be inferred, such as by pointing a loaded gun or thrusting a knife at someone.
Reckless acts refer to someone who is aware that their actions are dangerous but they do it anyway. Waiving a knife within an arm's length of another to scare them would be reckless. It's also reckless to drive after having no sleep for 72 hours and cause an accident after falling asleep at the wheel.
Criminal negligence is similar to recklessness except the person fails to recognize the apparent risk involved. For instance, a defendant was found criminally negligent for knocking out his wife's tooth after gesturing angrily with a phone and hitting her in the mouth. Being an inexperienced driver and deciding to drive at night along a steep embankment could also be criminal negligence when it results in passenger injuries.
Penalties for assault crimes often hinge on the level of harm inflicted. Alabama law refers to physical injury, serious physical injury, and serious or permanent disfigurement or disability. There's no set list of injuries in the law—judges and juries must decide the level of harm based on the legal definition and case law.
Physical injury is defined as an impairment of physical condition or substantial pain. Examples of physical injury can be cuts, significant bruising (like a black eye), or a busted lip. Courts have also held that a kick to the groin and a severe stomp on a foot resulted in physical injuries.
Serious physical injury means physical injury that creates a substantial risk of death, or that causes serious and protracted disfigurement, impairment of health, or loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ. For example, a victim who suffered multiple gunshot wounds or a deep knife wound has sustained serious physical injuries. Broken bones or internal injuries may also be considered serious physical injuries.
Disfigurement or disability must be serious and permanent, such as loss of sight or hearing or the use of a person's hand, arm, or legs. Scarring can be considered disfigurement but it generally must be pronounced, such as facial scarring.
Assault with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument creates an increased risk of harm, which bumps up the penalties.
Deadly weapons include firearms or anything designed, made, or adapted for the purposes of inflicting death or serious physical injury. While not an exhaustive list, other examples of deadly weapons include knives, stilettos, swords, daggers, and metal knuckles.
Dangerous instruments are any instruments, articles, or substances that, given the circumstances in which they are used or threatened, are highly capable of causing death or serious physical injury. For example, a wrench, motor vehicle, or piece of wood could constitute a dangerous instrument if used to strike another person.
A person convicted of assault faces anywhere from a short jail sentence to a 20-year prison sentence.
A person commits misdemeanor assault by intentionally or recklessly causing physical injury to another. It's also a misdemeanor to act with criminal negligence in causing another physical harm by means of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument. Finally, a person can commit misdemeanor assault by trying to prevent a police officer from performing their duties and causing physical harm to anyone in the process.
Third-degree assault is considered a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine.
A misdemeanor assault bumps up to felony assault in the second degree when the level of harm or risk involved increases or a vulnerable victim is targeted.
The law also considers intentionally drugging someone as second-degree assault.
A person convicted of second-degree assault commits a class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years' incarceration and a fine up to $15,000. A judge, however, must impose the maximum 10-year prison sentence when the defendant used a firearm or deadly weapon in committing the assault.
The most serious assaults fall under the first-degree penalties. The following actions that result in serious physical injury to another are considered first-degree assaults:
It's also a first-degree assault to intentionally cause another serious or permanent disfigurement or disability to a victim.
First-degree assault carries a sentence of not less than two years and not more than 20 years' imprisonment, plus a $30,000 fine. As with second-degree assault, a person who commits an armed assault (firearm or deadly weapon) faces a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.
Alabama imposes enhanced penalties when a person assaults a sports official or a family member or the assault is a hate crime.
Sports officials. Penalties for assaulting a sports official bump up to the next offense level—for instance, a Class A misdemeanor becomes a Class C felony.
Domestic assault. Assaulting a family member carries mandatory minimum sentences and increased penalties for repeat offenses.
Hate crime. When the assault is a hate crime, the defendant faces stiff mandatory minimum sentences.
If you're facing a charge of assault, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. Having an assault conviction on your record—even for a misdemeanor—can make it difficult to get a job or secure housing. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to your case.
(Ala. Code §§ 13A-1-2, 13A-5-6, 13A-5-11, 13A-5-13, 13A-6-20, 13A-6-21, 13A-6-22, 13A-6-130, 13A-11-144 (2021).)